The process was nearly always the same: get there, park the car, lock the doors, walk through the parking lot trying to avoid being hit by careless soccer moms in their minivans, get in, grab a basket, hurry to get out, and all the while realize that you are here with far too many other people all crowding in trying to find just the right can of beans or jar of peanut butter. This day of going through this process was just as unremarkable as the rest, and yet, there is an untold story somewhere in the aisles; an untapped mythos just waiting to be explained; and possibly something even redeeming to be found among the groceries that have started to become less expensive the closer they come to their inevitable expiration dates.
Armed with grocery list and disposable ballpoint pen, I began walking toward the store. The soccer mom’s minivan I deftly avoided had a bumper sticker that read in large blue letters: “All men are idiots and I married their king.” Since I was studying this sort of thing, the first thing that struck me (fortunately the minivan didn’t take that place) was the fact that the bumper sticker had no comma between its two clauses. The second thing to cross my mind was that I wondered what her husband thought of the bumper sticker. Perhaps she was telling the truth and the poor man couldn’t read, so he never knew what the bumper sticker said about him. If that was the case, I wondered what kind of cruel and sadistic woman she must be.
But I had not come there to speculate on the marital problems of another couple; I had come here with one goal in mind: groceries for the next few weeks. I glanced down at my list reviewing the items I’d written there earlier: coffee (always first on my grocery lists), milk, fruit, bread, cheese, peanut butter, fruit; I’d written that twice, so I crossed the second instance of that item off and continued reading down through my list. Coming to the bottom of my list, I knew I was prepared to enter the store regardless of what horrors lay within.
The place was busy. It was always busy, but today seemed to be even busier than normal. There were, of course, the usual crowd of people here, there just seemed to be much more of them than usual. Yet there we all were; all there with the same tools in our hands: small scraps of paper, sometimes folded down one edge to fit into pockets or purses, and a ballpoint pen. I went around one of the corners and saw down at the end of the aisle, a professor from the university. I’d only taken one of his classes, but it was still strange to see him there. Seeing people out of context is strange for anyone, but I was used to seeing this professor in suit jackets and slacks, and his old t-shirt and cloth shorts was a little too far out of his usual context than even I could have expected. Since I didn’t know him very well, I was alright with walking past with little more than a hello and a nod. Both of us were on our ways through the place with lists in hand. As I walked past, I wondered what was written on his list (professors do eat, right?), and what could be said about him based on that list.
I looked down at my list again: groceries on the left, price estimations on the right, so I could get a ballpark idea of what it would cost me to eat for the next few days. Going off the groceries, it might be easy to tell that I lived by myself– judging by how much of it was precooked and frozen, it would also be easy to guess how lousy of a cook I am; as for the price estimations, I like to think it’s because I like to be organized and planned, but it probably has a little more to do with my own obsessiveness than anything else.
I started thinking about this because a grocery list is an interesting piece if thought about in terms of a private, handwritten artifact. In other words, these lists, though mundane, are actually the ultimate example of writing for no one but the self: no one reads them except the author; no one would want to read them except the author. The whole thing could very well be written in an elaborate code, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone but the writer. In writing and composition studies, there is often a distinction drawn between writing for the self and writing for other people. The latter is talked about in terms of essays, papers, books, etc. — anything the author knows will have some kind of audience. The former is talked about in terms of diaries, poems written out and then thrown away, or first drafts the author knows will never be seen by anyone else. Put another way, writing studies almost always talks about writing for the self in mysterious, almost ethereal terms. Yet the majority of writing for the self, I’d be willing to bet, actually consists of people sitting down and writing things like grocery lists. No, these are not literature, but there’s a definite possibility that they say more about the human condition than many of the books students are made to read (and reread) in English literature classes.
Just as an example: behind me in the checkout line there was a woman who was probably in her mid to late thirties. I was in the process of checking out and bagging my groceries when she was
checking out, so I was within earshot and could hear the conversation she was having with the guy at checkout as he was scanning all of her groceries. At first, it was the usual conversation we all have in grocery stores; greeting, one asks how the other one’s day was, the other replies that it was good, etc. Again, where I was, I was within earshot of the conversation but not really paying too much attention until she said something that was outside the norm of that kind of transaction. When she heard the price of her groceries she said: “Well, that really adds up doesn’t it? And I had a short list today too.” The person working there hadn’t heard her, so he asked what she had said. “The price,” she replied, “it really adds up.” Since the computer screen that shows the price is faced toward the customer, and since I was within its line of sight, I looked up to see what she was talking about. She had less than twenty dollars in groceries.
As for this saying something about her, this means that the woman in the line behind me was one of two things: she was either very miserly, or she was very poor. My bags being full, I picked them up and began to walk away. As I was leaving; however, she was beginning to send certain items she had been trying to purchase back to their shelves: she wasn’t going to buy them. Here then is the story; here is the mythos: two types of people come to shop here, the frugal and the poor. In that churning miasma of people, it is impossible to tell which is which. Each person is united there by a common goal: the basic need to eat, and though the lists might be different, the needs; the wants; the humanity, in fact, is all the same.
*Author’s Note: This essay was written nearly a month ago, and then I graduated, my sister got married, my computer died, and I thought I lost it. Fortunately it wasn’t lost, and now that life is getting back to normal, it was time to post it.